All Posts by Stuart Childs

About the Author

Align Your Culture to Your Strategy

By Stuart Childs

Align Your Culture to Your Strategy

By Stuart Childs

In my line of work, I’ve had the unique opportunity to work with an incredibly diverse set of clients. From large oil & gas manufacturers to single location non-profit health systems, small technical colleges, and even some religiously-affiliated groups – I’ve been able to see how various organizations see the world, along with their differing approaches to strategic execution.

Yet, despite the differences in size, scope, industry, mission, etc., there are two constant and prevailing truths:

  1. Strategic Planning is of Pivotal Importance
  2. A Strong Culture is Key

Both Sides of the Equation: Strategy and Culture

I’ve yet to find anybody who doesn’t agree with these sentiments. My guess is in your organization, strategic planning and culture are championed above all else.

If you’re like most organizations I work with however, these pillars are also treated as a left brain/right brain, 2 sides of the coin, balancing arms of the organizational scale.

Instead of having conversations about Strategy OR Culture, teams today need to stop and consider how their strategic plan aligns with their unique and evolving culture.

Aetna: A Strategy/Culture Alignment Case Study

Recognizing There’s a Problem

Consider insurance behemoth, Aetna. For much of its 150+ year history, Aetna has thrived in the insurance space. The early 2000s, however, were not such a period. Poor acquisitions, outdated and cumbersome processes, and yes, a toxic culture had sunk the company to its knees.

At one point, Aetna was losing $1 million per day. Executives came and went, 4 CEO’s in 5 years, each one touting “culture change” as the key to the turnaround.

Enter John W. Rowe, MD, the man who thought differently about the relationship between strategy and culture. Instead of determining an initial strategy for turnaround, Dr. Rowe took the unique step of submerging himself at various levels of the organization, seeing the company from his employees’ eyes, and trying to better understand what key individuals in the organization were experiencing. Over time, and utilizing a variety of methods, Dr. Rowe uncovered something amazing.

Identifying the Strategy-Culture Disconnect

Aetna’s prevailing strategy had consisted primarily of narrowly managing medical expenses to reduce the cost of claims. This strategy not only alienated two key contributors to Aetna’s success – patients and physicians – but this methodology also flew directly against the cultural winds that made Aetna unique: a deep-seated creed for providing the best possible care.

The divide between employees’ passion for care and the company’s decision to reduce costs was deeper, however, as employees felt they had been robbed of something greater – pride in the company itself. With the focus on reduced costs, employees were not merely frustrated, they were disheartened, even embarrassed. One Aetna employee summed it up saying “I began to dread conversations at cocktail parties, knowing I would have to discuss my work.”

In response, Dr. Rowe made a surprising decision. Instead of continuing to focus on reducing costs to turn Aetna around, he announced a bold new strategy centered around “A New Aetna.”

Crafting “New Aetna”

Moving forward, New Aetna was going to invest heavily in customer service, ensuring quality care was at the core of Aetna’s strategic direction.

To communicate his vision and gain buy-in from the company, Rowe met regularly with leaders in the organization, asking for feedback and speaking in detail about what the turnaround would entail. Rowe was careful, not to define “leader” by rank only, but also included individuals with charisma and influence in the company, knowing their support was vital.

What Dr. Rowe understood was simple; any strategy that flew directly against the culture of Aetna was doomed to fail. Speaking at a town hall meeting, Dr. Rowe summed it up as, “Well I guess [the New Aetna is] really all about putting the pride back in Aetna”.

Put the Pride Back in Your Organization

While Aetna’s turnaround can be attributed to a number of different forces, it’s impossible to ignore the importance of picking strategies that are aligned with the culture of your organization. This does not mean that every decision must be a popular one, rather than selecting a strategy must be done with an eye towards whether your employees can rally behind it.

Here’s a checklist and a list of suggested next steps to deliver your “New Organization:”

  • Do you have formal cultural pillars? Check that your strategic initiatives are in line with your overall company promise.
  • Do you have informal cultural pillars? When was the last time you had lunch with a non-direct-report team member? You can learn something about the unwritten ground-level culture by having candid conversations with employees. Take back what you learned and check your strategy again – do they align?
  • How did you build your strategic plan? Did you only gain input from your executive team? Did your executive leaders talk to any of their work producers to get their input? In building your next plan, try getting a mixed group of leadership levels in the room to get perspectives from the ground-up.
  • Have you communicated your plan roll-out? If you’re dictating your company initiatives a la reading off tablets from on high, your plan becomes more austere with every global Town Hall webinar. Connect your plan to your people by explaining how your organization’s overall initiatives impact each department and level specifically.
  • Who are your agents of change? Like Dr. Rowe, leverage your influential employees at every level of the organization to help drive strategy execution. Identify them early on and check in regularly to help create buy-in and understanding within the places you can’t personally reach.

Implementation is Just the Beginning of Transformation

By Stuart Childs

Implementation is Just the Beginning of Transformation

By Stuart Childs

Implementing a new software or business process to drive change can be like buying an expensive piece of home workout equipment.

There’s the excited anticipation of this shiny new machine and visions of a fitter, leaner future you. The day it arrives, there’s the relieved joy that “it’s here!” It’s real and it is wonderful. Change is right around the corner.

Quickly though, reality sinks in, other priorities take precedence, and all-too-often that matte-black monument of physical fitness ends up holding dust and dirty clothes after a few lackluster months.

You had the tool, sure, but without a systematic process of accountability, that fitter, leaner future you never came to be.

The Challenge of Change: Sustainability

My experience at AchieveIt has shown me just how prevalent this phenomenon is in the business world. Most of my clients have been through multiple software implementations in the past, spending many thousands of dollars and countless hours in the process. These change management strategies fail, ultimately, because organizations underestimate the role culture plays in their ability to create, and – more importantly – sustain change.

When considering the challenge of change it’s easy to see why organizations spend more of their time focusing on operational excellence software than they do on the cultural elements that exist in their business units.

Managing the software implementation is clean. It’s simple. It’s finite.

I’ve got bad news. Change management is messy. It’s nonlinear. It takes focused patience.

Short-term goals are great, but they’re not your endpoint. Implementing a new way of thinking is necessary to get the change management ball rolling, but it can be overwhelming to take on the underlying cultural shift that must be maintained over time.

Luckily, I’ve uncovered with my clients four best practices that help make the prolonged work of business transformation more manageable, relatable, and ultimately effective.

Make Work Manageable

Implementation-based solutions appeal to the same fundamental psychology that makes diets and New Year’s resolutions so popular: they make work manageable.

Nobody would fondly envision a lifetime of forgoing sweets, but everybody can see themselves completing a 30-day diet. And yet, history is littered with fad dietary cleanses and failed resolutions. They’re manageable and measurable, but they don’t create lasting change.

Short-term strategies are doomed, at least in terms of achieving lasting impact, from their onset. By attempting to solve a long-term problem with the productivity trend of the day, leaders look for a solution that enables them to check a box while simultaneously avoiding the hard conversation about what transformation really means – discipline.

Treat Software as a Catalyst for Transformation – Not the Solution

Taking a step back to analyze these personal and business scenarios, it’s clear to see the misalignment between strategy and the desired result.

I want to be a healthier person for the rest of my life. Ok- I’ll take on a 30-day dietary challenge.

I would like to see my organization execute at a higher level. Great- let’s implement the latest operational excellence software. I think we can complete that by Q3.

In both situations, there’s a long-reaching desired state with a solution that lasts for just a small fraction of that time.

Neither of these events is in itself a bad idea. In fact, quite the opposite, they’re necessary to the overall development necessary to sustain change.

The difference comes in viewing these short-term projects as catalysts instead of as completion.

Each action – a short-term diet goal or a new process implementation – should serve as a jumping-off point for the rest of your transformation. They spark excitement and demand focus, but it’s up to strong leaders to maintain change after the implementation.

Culture is Your Secret Driver

Effective leaders recognize that the initial implementation process is a crucial piece of managing change across their organizations. They also recognize, however, that the true work begins post-implementation, championing the desired activities that will drive sustainable change. By doing so they alter their organizational culture until the change is as familiar and routine to their teams as their morning commute.

The good news is that even culture change can be broken down into manageable pieces of work. Of course, sustaining that culture will involve a high level of EQ – consistent listening, anticipating roadblocks, and cheerleading. While there are many different flavors of change management, here are 4 effective strategies you can incorporate today in order to give your transformative initiatives more staying power.

1. “Unbox” Strategy

Far too often I see clients who have developed a broad corporate strategy, meant to span business silos and connect the organization across multiple initiatives. They create that plan, however, in a silo.

Leaders need to invite their team to be part of the strategic development process, not just assume their buy-in. Move strategy out of the executive suite (“the box”) and get direct input from your team. You’ll likely uncover useful information, and you can be sure your team will be better motivated to execute your plans.

2. Exceed Alignment, Create a Mission

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest path to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu

Indeed, the importance of aligning strategies and tactics has been written about since (at least) 500 BC. Even if you have a well-aligned plan, too often the work stops at emailing the plan to the team.

While speaking to the team is an important first step, best-in-class organizations go beyond merely communicating responsibility. It may seem like a subtle difference, but my most successful clients take the time to explain to their teams how and why those responsibilities are critically important to the organization.

  1.  Here’s how your responsibility fits into the overall plan.
  2. Here’s what I need from you, by when, and how we will measure it.
  3.  And this is why it’s critically important.

Taking the time to create a sense of purpose
within your team will take your well-aligned plan to the next level.

3. Create Focus and Discipline 

Most organizations do a fairly good job of conducting quarterly status meetings to better understand how their teams are progressing toward their business plan.

But what about the in-between time? If the organization’s goals are truly the direction in which the company wants to be headed, then isn’t it worth taking 3-60 minutes 2x/month to discuss strategy?

Taking a few minutes more often, at a regular cadence to discuss strategy with your team not only keeps their responsibilities top of mind, but helps to further ingrain the importance of plan execution at every level.

4. Place Multiple Motivational Bets 

In his book, Stacking the Deck, former Charles Schwab CEO David Pottruck outlines his organizational change management theory. To paraphrase, he defines the general workforce into 3 categories and their acceptance of change:

5% of the team will welcome the change and embrace it enthusiastically.

15% of the organization never will – no matter what.

And that leaves 80% of the company who can be leaders or detractors depending on which of the other 2 groups resonates with them more.

Your job as a leader is to capture the 80% and empower them to be change agents within the organization. Some will respond to competition, others want to be publicly recognized. Some fear individual failure in their role. Your goal should be to employ as many of these methodologies as possible until your team is pulling in the same direction, regardless of what stimuli it takes to create the response.

The Heart of Transformation is in True Cultural Change

Software and new business processes are necessary to kick off change in your organization. But they’re not long-term solutions. They produce a rallying point that stimulates excitement around a strong vision, but true change is rooted in culture that is created at the top.

Start with these 4 tips: 1) Gain input from all levels early on; 2) Fully communicate alignment for essential buy-in; 3) Commit all resources to your most important goals by analyzing early and often; and 4) Use your employees as your best agents of change.

Bonus – having a reporting platform and execution consultant team that helps you build that culture of commitment will only amplify your efforts.